Who Needs to Visit a Torture Museum?

By: Rick Paskin | Date: Fri, September 12th, 2014

Old Town Square in Prague
Prague Old Town Square

As we walked by, the sign out front invited us to visit the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments. Who could pass that up? We’re in the city of Prague in the Czech Republic. It was one of several stops on our recent vacation that included the other eastern European cities of Budapest, Hungary, and Vienna, Austria. My wife Debbie and I were doing what tourists do, visiting the many museums, palaces, cathedrals, and other attractions in these great cities. But I had no stomach for the Torture Museum, not on this trip. It’s not that I’m squeamish, we’ve been to the one in London (more than once) and we’ve taken many a castle tour that includes a walk down a dark winding staircase to the medieval torture chamber. Most times I’m all for checking them out. Frankly, I usually find it more interesting than the endless portraits of kings, queens, and other historical figures that I’ll never remember. However, this trip was different. I just wasn’t in the mood for more torture.

Prague, Budapest and Vienna have each undergone a great renewal the past 20 or so years. Now their beautiful blend of the old and the new makes them popular tourist destinations. Yet they are still haunted by their past – not the medieval past, but the more recent past. World War II and the subsequent Soviet occupation still cast a shadow on these cities. The war left its mark and the aftermath wasn’t much better until the Russians decided to go home. What really struck me is how the holocaust is being remembered in each of these cities. They all have touching Holocaust memorials and the old Jewish sections of the city are highlighted as tourist destinations. Our guides told stories of the heroes who helped many Jews escape the Nazi concentration camps but there wasn’t much discussion of the guilty parties in their respective countries. Certainly, we should recognize those heroes, but so many more died than were rescued. I assume there must be underlying guilt about that.

Holocaust Memorial in Budapest

“Weeping Willow” Holocaust Memorial in Budapest. Each metal leaf bears the name of a victim.

Despite the “spin” they put on it, I was pleased by the presence of the memorials and happy to see so many people visiting the old Jewish synagogues and cemeteries. It’s difficult to look at a display of the artwork created by children in concentration camps but we have to remember so we won’t let it happen again. Right?

Back in our hotel room after a long day of touring we would turn on the TV and rest up awhile before dinner. Pretty much the only English language channels to watch outside of the US are the BBC or CNN International. They gave us a heavy dose of news around the world featuring mayhem, brutality, beheadings, and other acts of aggression pitting neighbor against neighbor. I would have welcomed an episode of The Bachelor – at least no one has lost a head … yet.

It seems some things haven’t changed much over the centuries. I wonder if someday there will be memorials for the millions who are dying in our modern-day holocausts? And if we erect these memorials, will it matter?

Perhaps there will also be museums showing the methods of 21st-century torture. Maybe not, who needs to visit a torture museum when we have CNN?

One thought on “Who Needs to Visit a Torture Museum?”

  1. Justin

    This is a fantastic blog post Rick, really thoughtful and necessary. If only everyone could be so reflective. As James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association recently said in an excellent NY Times Op-Ed on the importance of teaching history: “This is work that requires and builds empathy, an essential aspect of historical thinking.” Here is the article:
    Nice job again, happy to see you blogging up here, I hope the rest of the trip went well~

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